The recent fervor for anything Japanese, ’80s, and obscure has been, for many an enthusiast, an embarrassment of riches. A landslide of re-presses, highly curated compilations, and international tours has introduced new generations to some of 20th century music’s most fascinating periods, notably kankyō ongaku (environmental music), Japan’s ambient movement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wide majority of musicians earning this fresh attention have been men—a disparity characteristic to postwar experimental circles, East and West. In turn, this two-part essay takes an expansive look at the female artists that both prefigured and forged kankyō ongaku across disciplines, as well as the myriad influences informing their work.
As Spencer Doran points out in the liner notes to the landmark 2019 compilation, Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990 (Light In The Attic Records), although the term kankyō ongaku was first introduced as a corporate tool (Japan’s Muzak) in the mid ’60s, early manifestations such as temple bells or suikinkutsu—a “water piano cave” often installed in traditional Japanese gardens—have existed since the Edo period (1603–1867). The modern iteration of ambient, however, originates in last century’s avant-garde scrutiny of our daily environment—inquiries posited across the emptied staff lines of Satie and Cage, the mid-century adaptations of Zen Buddhism around the globe, and, more directly, Fluxus.
“I played piano, but my style soon became scratching the strings and banging the frames.”
Despite being institutionally alienated, and quite literally banned, from the professional arts until the late 1940s, Japanese women were among the earliest composers worldwide exploring proto-Fluxus techniques. Yoko Ono is the most legendary of these, as is the Gutai artist Atsuko Tanaka, whose Work (Bell) (1955) anticipated sound installation art altogether. Eminent among them is Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi, the co-founder of Japan’s first improvisation ensemble, Group Ongaku.
Formed in the late ’50s, Group Ongaku (1958–62) employed extra-instrumental techniques in their explorations of objet sonore, which they interpreted as "sound as object." Alongside Takehisa Kosugi, who would later form the Taj Mahal Travellers, Shiomi was the founding group’s most influential member. Choosing musicology over piano (the latter being a more conventional major for female students at Tokyo National University), Shiomi’s compositions traced music’s ubiquitous presence through the use of field recordings and “ordinary objects” like tables, chairs, and vacuums. After performing in a number of pivotal concerts at Tokyo’s Sogetsu Hall—the same legendary venue where Ono later hosted John Cage in the 1962 “John Cage Shock” events—Shiomi moved to New York with video artist and sculptor Shigeko Kubota, where they both worked with George Maciunas. In only a year’s time, Shiomi became a prominent member of the international Fluxus scene.2
“There is nothing constant in this world. Don’t you think so?”
Her childhood framed between the idyllic Seto Inland Sea and the devastating air raids of Okayama in 1945, Shiomi’s work often concerns the innate ephemerality of life and nature. This interest in transience, or “disappearing,” also reflects her musical training; possessing a concentrated awareness of diminuendo, she studied not only how sound, but also elements of the everyday environment, fade away. This is most apparent in her “Spatial Poems” (1965–75)—a mail art series concerning the transitory state of water, wind, light, or shadow. Often intended for late afternoon or twilight, these “events” include suspending a violin by rope, mirroring the sea, or playing Liszt on a submerged piano—atmospheric actions meant to concentrate and hone the participant’s sense of everyday soundscapes. These instructions were mailed to participants around the world, their responses collected, documented, and recirculated (the practice was partly revived by Hiroshi Yoshimura, the godfather of late-century ambient, in 1982’s Music For Nine Post Cards). It’s notable that Shiomi was at home raising children during this time and depended on these poems to keep her engaged with the arts community: “After one had run around giving concerts and attending other people’s concerts and performances, it was frustrating to be physically restrained to one place at a time,” she explains. “I felt that art should be alive everywhere all the time, and at any time anybody wanted it.”
“Space is a constant and still container in which paintings or sculpture are placed. To the contrary, an environment is filled with changes and coincidence, allowing us to have interactive relations.”
Shiomi returned to Japan in the mid ’60s, a chaotic era marked by the overhaul of Tokyo for the 1964 Olympic Games, heavy air and noise pollution, and student protests. Avant-garde circles posited a response to this cacophony, and Shiomi was active across them—from the first gestures of intermedia and technology-based art to the environmental art movement. Most notably, she exhibited in 1966’s From Space to Environment, a pivotal, explicitly multimedia exhibition and concert organized by the Environmental Society (kankyō no kai). Founded by one of the earliest composers of environmental music, the Fluxus-affiliated critic Kuniharu Akiyama, the Society stood in direct opposition to Muzak’s impersonal conditioning of the urban environment. Seeking to disrupt space and convention alike, it created extra-musical scores such as Kankyō Ongaku—a quite literal interpretation of furniture music—wherein the performers were instructed to slowly and painfully incline against their chairs.3
As Paul Roquet points out in Ambient Media (2016), by the ’70s it was clear that both Muzak and environmental art, set in their extremes of sentimentality and severity, were both deeply “out of sync with the contemporary turn toward using music as a technology of the self.” Nevertheless, I do find an exception in Shiomi’s consistently atmospheric and engaging work. In 1965, for instance, she mesmerized audiences at Gallery Crystal with her “wind radio” (a theremin), as well as a manipulation of Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance. In this latter event, the playing record was covered in dried water-soluble glue, gradually revealing the music as Shiomi peppered water across the wax—rather like William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (2003) set in reverse. This was followed by her Fluxist touchstone, Water Music (1965), wherein she released water, drop by drop, into an impromptu suikinkutsu—a draped kiddie pool. Such delicate yet attentive happenings presaged the era to come.
Part 2 of this essay will appear in the May issue of the Brooklyn Rail.
- Mieko Shiomi, email message to author, May 30, 2019.
- Kawamura, Sally. “Appreciating the Incidental: Mieko Shiomi’s ‘Events.’” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 3 (2009): 311–36.
- Yoshimoto, Midori. 2008. “From Space to Environment: The Origins of Kankyō and the Emergence of Intermedia Art in Japan.” Art Journal 67, no. 3 (2008): 24–45.